Do affirmations work like magic? Or are they nonsense?

Almos Bechtold via

Do you remember the fictional character Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live? Back in the early-90s, he had a mock self-help show called “Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley.” Played by Al Franken, Stuart would begin each episode with an affirmation he used to say out loud while facing a mirror:

I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.

While Franken did it for humor, the fact is many people believe that affirmations—repeating the same motivational mantra on a daily basis (like “I’m going to get that job) can actually help make your declaration come true. The idea of using daily affirmations as a way to attract good things to your life is a key part of the popular book The Secret. According to, it works like this:

How To Use Affirmations 

  • Take three deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling to a count of 10.
  • Stand in front of a mirror and look yourself in the eyes. Smile, if it feels natural.
  • Say your affirmation (or list of positive affirmation) slowly and clearly.
  • Repeat the affirmation(s) 3-5 times, really focusing on the meaning of each word.
  • Take another three deep breaths, allowing your body to absorb the positive feeling of the affirmation(s).

The idea of using affirmations to achieve your goals long predates The Secret. One of its biggest proponents was Florence Scovel Shinn, a prominent New Thought teacher in the early 1900s. Shinn believed that “owing to the vibratory power of words, whatever man voices, he begins to attract.” She taught that affirmations were like “a magic wand” and that if the words were repeated daily, they would “invite the things that you want into your life.”

Shinn’s book Your Word is Your Wand contains hundreds of ideas for affirmations, segmented by categories like Happiness, Love, Marriage and even Memory and Debt. Some of the affirmations are more general in nature like:

I do not limit God by seeing limitations in myself. With God and myself, all things are possible.

Others cut right to the chase, willing success or prosperity into the affirmation-user’s life:

The tide of Destiny has turned and everything comes my way.

My God is a God of plenty and I receive all that I desire, require and more.

Wait a second. Aren’t affirmations a bunch of BS?

Maybe. But while you may see daily affirmations as a joke, there are many who believe in their power. Take the popular Dilbert author Scott Adams who swears that by using daily affirmations he was able to “achieve a number of unlikely goals”.  In fact, when Adams was a struggling cartoonist a long way from success, he used the affirmation “I Scott Adams will become a syndicated cartoonist” daily for several months. Somehow, it worked.

I’ll let Adams give you his take on affirmations and how they work below, though I’ve edited his words to more concisely summarize his ideas. As you’ll note, rather than say his affirmations out loud, Adams writes them down.

Prior to my Dilbert success, I used affirmations on a string of hugely unlikely goals that all materialized in ways that seemed miraculous. Some of my goals involved neither hard work nor skill of any kind. I succeeded against all odds. My best guess about what really happens when you use affirmations is that several normal phenomena come together to create what seems abnormal.

I wonder if affirmations are one way in which the subconscious communicates with the rational part of your brain. Affirmations take effort. Perhaps your subconscious only allows you to spend that much time on goals that it feels you have a chance of obtaining even if your rational mind does not. For example, my rational mind didn’t believe I could become a syndicated cartoonist with no experience and virtually no artistic ability. But maybe some other part of my brain knew it was a realistic goal.

Viewed in this light, if you can write a goal 15 times a day for months, there’s a good chance that some part of your brain views the goal as achievable even if your rational mind doesn’t see how.

Writing affirmations helps you focus on your goals, moving them from wishful thinking to something in which you are willing to invest yourself. Perhaps affirmations are a way to manage your own level of commitment. In effect, you are brainwashing yourself, and this might help you get through the tough patches that come with pursuing ambitious goals. When I started Dilbert, I didn’t take a day off for ten years. You only work that hard if you fully expect something good to come from it. I did.

What do you think? Have you ever tried using affirmations on a regular basis? Do they work?

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